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A group of anti-casino councillors commandeered a city-run consultation on plans for a new Toronto gambling complex Wednesday night, claiming the event was biased.
The city manager's office is in the midst of collecting residents' feedback on a controversial Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation proposal to bring a casino downtown. Possible locations include Exhibition Place, the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, and the Port Lands. Woodbine Racetrack in Etobicoke is also a potential site.
Last month the city launched a public consultation on the proposal online, and held the first of five planned open houses Wednesday night in the rotunda at City Hall.
But half an hour into the crowded event, Councillor Gord Perks, a staunch casino opponent, stood up on a chair and announced he and several of his colleagues were holding their own meeting in a committee room upstairs.
"Unfortunately, this consultation has left a little bit to be desired," said Perks.
"I apologize on behalf of this group of councillors. We had hoped for a more lively discussion."
More than a hundred people then followed Perks to a committee room on the second floor, where the group of anti-casino councillors presided over a breakaway meeting dominated by residents opposed to the OLG plan. Dozens of people, many of them wearing "No Casino Toronto" buttons, took turns making three-minute speeches.
The group of councillors - which included Perks, Adam Vaughan, Kristyn Wong-Tam, Mike Layton, Paula Fletcher, Pam McConnell, and others - said they decided to hold their own meeting because they objected to the format of the open house.
Unlike city consultations on other issues, there was no chance for people to publically voice their opinions or have an open discussion, the councillors complained. Instead, residents were invited to fill out surveys after reading dozens of poster-sized information boards set up around the rotunda.
Vaughan called the consultation process "a sham."
"Look around the room," he said. "There's barely enough space to look at the boards, let alone a way to ask questions about what's on the boards."
"This is the way you stage something if you don't want to focus the opposition. And quite clearly, they're afraid of the opposition."
Vaughan believes the city manager's office has already decided that the revenue from a gaming facility would be a windfall for the city, and is not interested in the public's point of view.
The councillor cited a controversial report released in October by city manager Joe Pennachetti, which found the proceeds from an "integrated gaming complex" could all but fix Toronto's financial problems. The report was heavily criticized because it was based on the assumption that the OLG would agree to fork over an annual hosting fee of $66 - 168 million, a much greater amount than the corporation pays any other city for hosting one of its facilities.
The OLG now says $50 - 100 million is a more realistic range, but Pennachetti didn't back down Wednesday, telling reporters, "We still stand by those numbers. "
Lynda Teschereau, who coordinates public engagement for the city manager's office, denied that the consultation process was pro-casino. But she said the city might consider modifications to the four remaining open houses in order to address the councillors' complaints.
"We would always hear from people, hear what the concerns are, and see if we can make some adjustments that would help," she said.
While a clear majority of residents at the open house supported the anti-casino councillors, some, like Lise Boisson, said they were unhappy with how Vaughan and the others "kidnapped the process."
"I think he was completely out of line," she said.
"I come from Montreal. We have a casino. Nobody's died yet. I'm thinking if it's handled properly, it can happen. It can be beneficial to the city."
The city manager's office is accepting public feedback on a casino until January 25. The results will be compiled in a report that will go before Mayor Rob Ford's executive committee in March, and council is expected to make a final decision at its meeting the following month.